Notes of a Time Traveller

Surviving a cold winter isn’t easy. The days are short, the sun becomes a mythical entity, a sheath of white spreads over, and winds blow from lands — you’d probably never get to see. In Seoul, the streets often resemble Gotham city, with skyscrapers reflecting the darkness a million times over — doing nothing to lift your fallen spirit or broken mood. If you’ve got a vivid imagination, like mine, you might just think you’ve walked into a comic book and didn’t know how to get out. 

“No matter where you are, you’re always a bit on your own, always an outsider.”
― Banana Yoshimoto

Honestly, surviving winter, is not something I wanted to tick off my bucket list. Unlike Basil, I’ve always tried to run miles aways from the cold. And, enchanting as the snow has appeared in our posts, by the end of February, I craved for the sun and warm days. The timing for a trip back home couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. However, returning home after 6 months, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges and trepidation.

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”
― Anita Desai

As a traveller, you can choose to be: a spectator, a silent observer, or a participant. As an expat, the choice is never truly yours. Fitting in is the only way forward. And, if you like to be inconspicuous like me, a thick winter jacket might just do the trick. Strangely, no matter how long you stay, wherever you do, and try hard to do what the locals do; the instant you step into a tourist zone — it’s easy to be confused as one.

I rarely like to fall for tourist traps, and yet, there are times it might not be such a bad idea to give in. On a 2 hour wait at the airport, before my flight back home, I tried to fight boredom and sleep in equal measure. With nowhere particular to reach, I walked into an enactment of a royal parade. This zone was brimming with cultural activities and performances. I doubled as a tourist, clicked pictures of everything culturally exotic, tried Hanji (Korean handmade paper) stamping, and seemed to blend effortlessly in the sea of travellers.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett

9 hours later I was on familiar ground and yet, I couldn’t seem to recognise it anymore. It’s strange how foreign everything felt and I wondered: if it was me who had turned foreigner instead? Unwittingly, I had chosen to become an observer. I’d read about pangs of readjustment in blogs and online articles. I just never thought it would ever happen to me.

The suburb, I grew up in, seemed a lot more different. Cars honked in the red light, dust and expensive perfume competed for a spot of air, and prices reflected the rent for real estate. Many expats had chosen to settle here and they seemed more at ease than me. My sleepy suburb had probably died a slow death, when it was taken over by high-rises and local celebrities; I hadn’t been around to realise it.

To my friends, the ones I hadn’t seen in more than a year, I had become a time traveller. They seemed to have moved ahead, unaffected, while I was stuck back in time and nostalgia. Sadly, my time machine hadn’t reset my date of travel — to the time — I could have had a conversation without feeling like the odd one out.

“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In the duration of my month long stay, the feeling of being lost, never left me, and I wondered if I had tried to hard fit in Seoul that I had forgotten where I came from. The weeks that followed didn’t seem to clear the haze and I felt the need to leave all the confusion behind and head to a place I felt most at home — the mountains. Things don’t always work the way you want them to and I had to make a trip to my hometown instead. And like everything else that I’d seen before — change was hard to escape. Strangely, in the quiet of my mum’s front yard and under the umbrella of the old jackfruit tree, I seemed to finally make peace with my situation. Not needing to belong anywhere or hide under a blanket of who I needed to be —  set me free. And as much as we’re urged to seek our identity under the security of a particular cultural heritage, either one we’re born into or taught as a rite of passage, I think it’s OK for some of us to become drifting clouds in the wide open blue sky — soaking new cultures whilst never forgetting the old.

“The journey itself is my home.”
― Bashō Matsuo

Few places evoke as many emotions as the airport. I’ve never really learned to say goodbye and when it’s your parents trying hard to fight moist eyes, it doesn’t make it any easier. And although, I didn’t want to leave — it was time to go back. The cherry blossoms marked our year long stay in Seoul. Like the last year, spring marks a return of life and the chance for new beginnings. I’m not sure how much longer we’d be here, or if it will get easier, but knowing that home does not have to be restricted to a piece of land within a picket fence, or a box of childhood memories, or a space between four walls — makes living anywhere feel a lot like home.

28 responses to “Notes of a Time Traveller

  1. Like you, I am not a fan of cold weather at all. Anything below 20’C is cold for me. Winter is coming in Melbourne, and it does get cold here. No matter how many layers I have, like layers of wool over me, I still feel cold. And even with a thick jacket 😦 I’d rather have sticky sweltering hot any day.

    Home is hard to feel sometimes because…it changes. People move on because they have found purpose in another place, and so a lot of the time it is not us leaving. True, we won’t know how long we’d be in a place, or when our next adventure elsewhere may be. But I guess that is what makes life exciting.

    • I like temperatures between 10 and 20 deg. Spring temperatures hover in that range. It’s warm and chilly. The Korean winter is very cold because of the wind more than the temperature. And these days with the changing climatic patterns, the cold is too cold and the heat is too hot.
      Exciting? Maybe, Basil finds it exciting to keep moving. I get bored easily, but prefer to have a kind of stability. I guess that’s what makes our partnership work?

      • Well, opposites do attract, so maybe that is what makes you and Basil work. I too like stability and not always go-go-go. As an introvert, that wears me down so have to pace that out. Best of luck with upcoming travels 🙂

      • Haha! They do, don’t that? 🙂 I’m hoping for some new adventures (outside Korea) this year. So far nothing has really worked out. 😦

  2. Oh wow, Cheryl this is an amazing post. I felt like I got to experience all those emotions right alongside you. It was beautifully written and I think you’ve articulated so well the feelings so many travellers (whether expat or otherwise) have about not just their experience abroad but about notions of “home”.
    Good to see you back in the blogosphere too, my friend!

    • Your comment made my day, Kim! It’s strange how we’ve never met and bonded so well. And, considering the number of friends I’ve lost (they’ve gone back home) in Seoul, it’s so good to see you back here my friend. I am so happy! I’m not regular on Instagram. I find it a bit difficult to blog and post pictures.
      I know you would get me! It wasn’t easy writing this post. It was a toned down version of what I was really going through. I’ve stopped thinking of home and who am I. I think I’m just going to be. Spring is here and it’s so magical. And makes me want to believe in fairies and all the things I never do. Haha!

      • Sounds like you have the right approach to dealing with how you’re feeling at the moment. Enjoy the present & find wonderful things in the everyday. And I think it’s awesome that we’ve been able to become friends, despite not having met. Shows you can find your kindred spirits anywhere 😀

  3. It’s nice to read your reflection of journey, the return and myriad thoughts. Indeed, one feels out of place after returning from a long hiatus. I have been away to the far east trip for the last 8 days; I feel out of place. I got used to the systematic and organized traffic and life only to be back in chaos!

  4. “Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” I’ve always liked Pratchett, he may be whimsical but he had a keen social eye. It’s certain that traveling abroad has changed my perspective on the world, but sometimes it’s just time. I’ve never been an expat, but if I go back to the town I mostly grew up in some 40-50 years ago it’s almost like visiting another country I’ve seen on television, it seems familiar but yet it’s completely different.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Dave. Travel made me look at the world and people differently. Perhaps, that’s where the confusion started. Living as an expat and meeting people from different parts of the globe compounded that confusion. I’ve been told that it’s good to be confused. Maybe, it indicates ‘change’ in a good way. Although, it doesn’t feel good at all. 🙂
      I’m glad spring leaves no room for such thinking and makes me just want to be and head outside.

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  6. In the midst of my own home-leaving and new home-building, I understand you well. I like your metaphor of the drifting cloud, which I’ve felt like this past year, but I am also eager to try to put down some new roots. I hope as spring arrives in Seoul, your heart lightens with the sky.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Lex. Means a lot to me. And, I was so sure you’d get me. 🙂 Spring has definitely cheered me! It’s bursting with blossoms here and the sun is out. It’s a fantastic time to visit or stay in Seoul. More posts on that coming soon. I’ve stopped thinking of roots, but I know what you mean. It’s good to have something familiar. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t shifted from the neighbourhood we’re living in and our friends can’t seem to understand why. It feels like home — in a really odd way. 🙂

  7. This is an absolutely lovely post and one I can totally relate to, although I am not an expat. Travelling and going places is great fun but home is where the heart is. I feel out of place whenever I visit my hometown where I grew up in for 19 years. But right now home for me is here, enjoying your post on a sinking sofa, with a leaking air-con and a heavy glass display frame that’s almost falling off! Not perfect but it’s home. It’s so quiet now, just as I like it. Have a great weekend, Cheryl!

    • Thanks so much, Helen. 🙂 I really loved the way you described your ‘home’ — perfectly imperfect and yet the perfect place to feel at ease. 🙂 I guess, we’re all sailing in a the same boat as travellers or expats, feeling alien in places that should feel familiar.
      Have a great weekend yourself! 🙂

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